At the Anderson family reunion I attended years ago, when the heavy-set, ruddy blonde prairie farmers I’m from passed me a 24 of beer and told me I have Viking blood coursing through my veins, I don’t think they realised how confusing that could be. Now, having fought my way through several books and a couple of BBC documentaries on the subject, I’m less sure than ever.
What’s a descendent of those who were the scourge of Europe through the not-so-dark Dark Ages to do? We’re having a full-blown identity crisis. The wonderful, recently released History channel series “Vikings” takes some of the usual turns (rough and ready adventurers with lots of facial hair – at least, the men. Blood and gore. Plenty of sex). And yet, despite some caricatures, the greater truth the series portrays is this: it turns out that being a Viking meant above all being, believe it or not, complex.
If only we’d thought about it, we’d have suspected the former “pillage and plunder” paradigm too simple to be true. How could a small band of tattooed berserkers really be responsible not only for the sack of monasteries and cities all over northern Europe (and as far as Byzantium), but also for positive changes: the design of beautiful and advanced sea- and river-craft, the exploration of waters as far as North America, a fashion craze in costume jewelry – then, not now – the minting of coinage, and a process of urbanization that led to the establishment of quite a number of NEW cities? And why should small farmers who only wanted gold and slaves have become quite so good at setting out grid-lines and building churches? It may be a surprise to the neo-pagan “revivalists” to find out – should they ever care to – that the various hyphenated Scandinavians of the British Isles and Normandy were in part responsible for the 11th century re-flowering of Christianity.
My Norse relatives will hear more about this as I travel through Ireland and Norway on pilgrimage this summer. But the first to be surprised is me: I thought I had my ancestors pegged. It turns out they were more than just a hardy lot. They were often violent warriors of fortune, yes. But just as often, many of them were travelers and settlers, artists and urban planners, the pious and the pilgrims of their days. Learning as they traveled. That latter part doesn’t just sound like a heritage. That sounds like a plan.